Jerry Hicks interview: Not more of the same
The Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB is urging support for Jerry Hicks, the rank-and-file candidate in the Unite election. Peter Manson spoke to him about his campaign and perspectives
What are the main differences between you and Len McCluskey?
One of the main differences is related to the failure of Unite and other trade unions to take on and defeat the anti-union laws. Everything, in my view, comes back to that reluctance or inability that leaves us so vulnerable to government attacks as part of their austerity agenda for the crisis that we didn’t create.
Len McCluskey was an assistant general secretary for many years. Before that he was a high-ranking officer in the Transport and General Workers Union. The buck stops somewhere. I’m not saying this to attribute blame, but these people get fine salaries - I’ll come on to that in a moment - and they like to bestride the national stage, but they don’t take responsibility for their inaction.
These anti-union laws were brought in by Thatcher and, to their shame, left unchanged by Labour in 13 years (three terms and two prime ministers - all backed by the T&G, Amicus and Unite). In fact, from 2001 to 2011 £41 million was donated to Labour, yet the anti-union laws were not repealed. I know who is to blame - Thatcher, who brought them in, and Labour, which left them unchanged - but the problem is that the TUC and the big unions did virtually nothing to overturn them.
So one big difference, I think, is that if McCluskey is re-elected we will see more of the same, in that the current leadership don’t have the confidence to take them on and don’t believe we can really bring about change. We have seen militantly fought disputes, but the opportunities are not seized to smash the anti-union laws. For example, Vestas on the Isle of Wight provided a golden opportunity to join the occupation during that hot summer of 2009 - we did have 14 Unite members there. But because it was an occupation, which had been criminalised and was illegal, although the eyes of the world were on it, Unite was nowhere to be seen.
That was under a Labour government with a young environment minister, Ed Miliband - who Len McCluskey backed, along with Unite, to the tune of £100,000, to become Labour leader. I think that Unite could have joined that occupation, its general secretary standing on the roof alongside the occupiers - that could have forced things to a head. Labour, clutching our millions, would have taken that factory into public ownership, renationalised the East Coast rail network when National Express reneged on their franchise, and subsequently nationalised banks to the tune of trillions of pounds. So nationalisation of Vestas was eminently possible. That would have saved the factory - 600 workers would still be there and instead of 14 members I think we would have had 600. We probably would have had around 6,000 on the Isle of Wight and an extra 60,000 countrywide.
The second opportunity was the Olympics. Unite failed both under Labour and then the Con-Dem government to recognise and maximise that opportunity, which I would do. That is going to be key if we are to survive as a class. I am pleased that £500 was won for London busworkers, but we could have used the opportunity of the Olympics in other ways. It was a project that could overrun financially, but not time-wise.
We should have met with the workforce and made the argument that the blacklisting of workers was illegal and that they should be offered jobs. If we had won that, then we could have taken on the laws relating to ‘secondary action’ - for instance, if we had a stoppage on the Olympics project in support of a fight against hospital closures; after all, construction workers sometimes have accidents and require accident and emergency centres. Workers must have the right to take secondary action. In my view, job losses, cuts and privatisation have a ‘secondary action’ effect.
So I say we must seize the opportunities to take on and defeat the anti-union laws. Such actions would make every single member, every single trade unionist and actually everyone in the country a lot more confident in resisting and defeating the austerity attacks.
Another big difference, as I see it, concerns the hundreds of Unite officials, who are all appointed. McCluskey says they are appointed by a panel of an elected national executive. That might be true, but that is only a handful of people. One of the biggest criticisms I hear when I travel the country is that often the appointed official is “not from our industry” and doesn’t know the sector. Sometimes they’re there one month and gone the next. Irrespective of those arguments, I believe that members should choose who represents them. So I am in favour of the election of all Unite officials. Indeed I feel that principle so strongly that when I was offered a regional officer’s job in 2003 I refused. By contrast, McCluskey’s union career includes 30 years of appointments - he went from being a clerk in the docks to a paid union officer.
During those 30 years I was an elected rep, then senior rep; I have been on strike, both official and unofficial, and involved in occupations. Now I’m not scoring a point - I’m making a point. I share the experience of a million and a half members. A million and a half members who aren’t on jobs for life and six-figure salaries. They are at the sharp end in the workplace and they face the daily ‘modernisations’ and ‘productivity measures’ of the employers. I experienced all that ‘go faster, work harder’ at Rolls Royce until my victimisation and dismissal in 2005. They tried to bring in not only these new practices, but pension changes and so on. All that gives you a steel, an organisational ability - otherwise you go under.
So my three decades, being elected throughout, of direct involvement in occupations, in organising strike action, has given me the experience that McCluskey lacks - if you’re going to ask others to take action, it’s a good idea to show that you yourself were prepared to do it.
What about the idea put about by the union’s United Left that Jerry Hicks is “unemployed, takes no part in any Unite constitutional committee anywhere and represents no-one, and has no administrative experience”? They ask: “Would you really trust this man to run a £150 million organisation?”1
Well, I was considered experienced enough to be offered the regional organiser’s job and I was elected to the NEC and the general purposes finance committee with the highest vote just over two years ago - 62,520 members didn’t have an issue with me not working. Let me make it plain: I think it’s a badge of honour right now.
In fact this is a good analogy: ask most workers who in the workplace knows the problems and who is best placed to put them right? It’s not the boss, it’s not the managers: it’s us. We know the problems. There is actually a disconnect between being a bureaucrat or appointed official on a big salary and the real situation faced by members. The bureaucracy is a problem, not a solution.
That doesn’t mean that all its policies are bad. I think community branches are good, for example. I had no branch for eight months, along with tens of thousands of other members. The branch still doesn’t have a bank account. Text messages and photo-opportunities don’t persuade me that there’s a sense of urgency and that we have a coordinated, winning fightback strategy. Community branches are a good idea, but we need so many more of them and they need to be set up so much quicker.
Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have cross-union community branches?
I think that’s a very good idea. I’m glad you say that, because I don’t know the precise details of the problems facing members in every sector Unite organises - and neither does McCluskey, by the way - but I know who does have knowledge, and that’s the members in those sectors. So, rather than top-down dictat, members should have more say, members should have more control.
So, yes, that’s a great idea and it should be put to members. It’s actually the epitome of what I stand for. Some of our sectors are so huge that there’s virtually no involvement. Members should elect officials and should have control over rank-and-file organisation.
You’re a member of Grass Roots Left, which stresses such rank-and-file organisation. Is that connected with the idea of a worker’s wage for union officials?
Yes. The failure to do the right thing when the chips are down didn’t start with the Tolpuddle martyrs - they weren’t martyrs before they did something. People throughout history have been brave and taken risks, whether it’s the Tolpuddle martyrs or the suffragettes, those who fought against apartheid or to bring down the Berlin wall or those who smashed the poll tax. How do you do that without taking risks? It takes “civil disobedience” - as an action, not a catchphrase.
So to reconnect with members I think you have to have the mind of a member and live the lifestyle of a member. It’s not a question of sackcloth and ashes - we want to raise standards. But a general secretary taking home more than £2,000 a week, every week, right throughout the year, is just not right.
The privilege and honour of running a big union, of being able to engage with members across the country and have the potential to make a difference should be sufficient. The reward should be the average wage of members, which currently is about £26,500 a year. That is an average, of course, so it will still be more than many receive, but that’s not a problem for me.
‘Grassroots’ is a tag; ‘rank and file’ is a tag; but really what it means is, ‘Are you a member of the union? Do you know what’s in the minds of the members? Do you know the real struggle they are engaged in? Do you live the same lives as the members?’ The same goes for MPs or directors of companies - they get to the stage where they don’t realise that what they’re doing is wrong any more. The senior officials in our union are all on very good wages - and paid out of members’ pockets. Yet they’re blatantly campaigning in this election for one candidate. That’s wrong too. That’s when you get this disparity between the way we see the establishment and the way they see themselves. They’re not affected by the cuts like we are - Len McCluskey would have had a pay rise with the reduction in the highest rate of tax. Perhaps he’s given it to charity or the strike fund - I don’t know.
The point that I’m making is that it’s not only bankers who are rewarded for failure. We have failed to defeat the anti-union laws. We’ve failed to hold Labour to account on so many fronts. In my view we backed the wrong candidate for leader in Ed Miliband instead of John McDonnell, who clearly had the best policies. So ‘rank and file’, ‘grassroots’, ‘ordinary members’ - there are 1.5 million in Unite alone and seven million in the TUC and they are what should drive us.
How do you answer those you say to you, ‘That’s all very well, Jerry, but the main job right now is to “consolidate the union for the left”’?2
I’ll tell you what I say: in the last two elections I stood in, my detractors said, ‘Vote for Jerry Hicks and you’ll let in the right wing.’ The first time round that was the senior national official, Kevin Coyne, and the other rightwing candidate, Paul Reuter, but we beat them both handsomely when we finished runner-up. But blow me - the same detractors with the same broken records and the same tired, old arguments used the same line in the last election: ‘Vote for Jerry and get Len Bayliss’. We beat Len Bayliss and we beat Gail Cartmel.
I’m going to stress this point: I finished runner-up on two occasions as a rank-and-file, ordinary member, increasing our vote from 40,000 to over 52,000. Both times there was no ‘demon in the dark’ - that was just the message put out, sadly, by the left. Either their analysis was flawed (and analysis and judgement nowadays is crucial) or they were lying - and I’d hate to think they were lying.
I knew Len Bayliss was never going to win. But here’s the difference - Bayliss after the election was given a quarter of a million pounds of members’ money to leave the union. I wouldn’t have done that.
This time, of course, there isn’t even a rightwing candidate standing, but still the Socialist Party in England and Wales can’t recommend a vote for you.
Yes, that was my point - there are only two candidates. I’m clearly to the left of Len McCluskey, so, whoever wins this one, the left gets in. Actually, just like last time, I think we’re pulling this election more left, both in rhetoric and deed.
I would love to have had the support of the Socialist Party - I think they’ve made a huge mistake. They say in their ‘What we stand for’ on their website: “Full-time union officials to be regularly elected and receive no more than a worker’s wage.”3 Instead of ‘What we fight for’, perhaps they should call it ‘What we prefer to put up with’.
SPEW also attempts to answer those who say that, by bringing the election forward and running it on such a short time-scale, McCluskey is trampling on union democracy. SPEW’s response is that “it’s not just a case of what is done, but who does it and for what reasons”. In other words, it’s OK if our side resorts to such manoeuvres. What do you think of that argument?
Frankly, I think it’s crude and crass. It’s been constructed to back up their own decisions, which I think is wrong. If the right wing did this, we would be going crazy about it, of course.
But I think the error in bringing the election forward is massive. It was concocted last summer - no question, with the knowledge and support of senior Labour officials - to avoid a clash with the general election in 2015. Here I agree with McCluskey - that was the reason. Unite will plough £10 million or more into Labour’s coffers in the next couple of years - particularly in election year - and there will be no scrutiny over it at all and no quid pro quo.
That’s what it was about - simply to re-elect a Labour government, which once more will refuse to repeal the anti-union laws. I think holding the two elections in the same year would have pulled Unite further to the left and allowed us to make more demands on Labour, written in blood. Indeed, between now and then we could have insisted that Labour acts before we fund them by voting against the cuts, rather than ‘not so deep, not so fast’ - that’s not a solution.
So I think it’s almost a crime against the class - and I don’t use those words lightly - to manoeuvre the biggest union in the country, with potentially the most power, the single biggest donor to Labour, to change our election date. It’s letting Labour off the hook, with its agreement, no doubt.
It was last September that this first raised its head, when Len McCluskey asked the executive council to change the rule book in line with legislation - the rule book said that 65 is the retirement age - and the NEC agreed. Well, that was with one person in mind, wasn’t it? And the second rule change he put to them was to raise the number of branch nominations required to stand for general secretary from 50 to 100. That was preparing the ground to make it another ‘closed’ election. That is just so wrong, it beggars belief. So, in changing the rule book to permit the general secretary to remain in post until 67, the union has accepted the raising of the retirement age - there will be no campaign to bring it back down to 65, let alone reduce it to 60. That won’t be a demand on Labour.
Of course, the Socialist Party talks about a new workers’ party - mind you, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate didn’t do very well in Eastleigh, did he? But my position on Labour is a lot different from McCluskey’s. He believes it can be reclaimed. Well, I think that, if McCluskey wins, then over the next two years we’ll hear not more rhetoric about “civil disobedience” and industrial action, but less.
The main beneficiary of the date change (apart from McCluskey, of course, who hopes to get an extra two years as a result) is ultimately Labour, not our members. And Labour will put the pressure on McCluskey not to have demonstrations in London in the lead-up to the general election. If you capitulate on these first requests, where does that leave you?
What exactly is your position on the Labour link then, Jerry?
I don’t call for disaffiliation, although that might be a consequence. I don’t believe it can be reclaimed - I think it’s beyond the pale. But I acknowledge that that’s where millions of working class people look to. They’re disappointed and betrayed, but they still look to Labour.
My argument is not complicated, but a little more nuanced. I say from the onset that we should support only those MPs, councillors and candidates who support our policies. Our policy is to oppose PFI, so I would have immediately stopped funding those Labour MPs who voted for that. Len McCluskey talks about civil disobedience against the cuts - well, it seems to me inconceivable that we should be backing Labour councillors who vote through cuts.
Any Labour MPs or councillors who do the wrong thing by us - by which I mean the million and a half Unite members and seven million members of TUC unions - should not be supported. If we are against tuition fees why should we support MPs who vote for it? I think the RMT back half a dozen Labour MPs who call for the renationalisation of rail - very sensible.
Our affiliation fees are astronomical. I know it’s Labour Party rules, but we’ve paid £6 million in the last few years. We should renegotiate that. But the real strong point I make is to support only those who support our policies. We should keep our money in a clenched fist, not hand over fist. But I don’t call for disaffiliation.
I broadly agree with you on that. I also agree that we can’t ‘reclaim’ Labour - it was never ours. However, if it’s possible to ‘reclaim’ the unions - Labour’s paymasters - for rank-and-file workers, then surely it must be possible to make the Labour Party ours. It would be a different beast from the one we have seen up to now. In other words, there’s still a job to be done in Labour.
Well, yes, there is, but there are two ways of approaching it. My feeling is that, if we had a policy in line with what I’m suggesting, more MPs and more councillors would back our policy to get our support. We pay for the offices, the legwork, the leafleting, the campaigns.
But there’s a cost for that. If the next prospective Labour candidate doesn’t commit to our policy, then why should we back them? I’d like to see more trade unionists standing, so you only get our support if you’re one of us or if you agree with us. All we got at the last general election was a safe seat for Jack Dromey, our deputy general secretary. That’s outrageous. It should have been a workplace rep, a convenor or someone from one of our national committees with a history of struggle.
So it’s the other way around, if you like - with such a policy, they would come towards us.
Are there any other policies you want to mention?
Yes, just a couple of things. I’m against nuclear waste and I certainly believe in green energy. Just as Germany is fast approaching the millionth job created, I think Britain should be, if you like, the Saudi Arabia of green energy. We should have a strategy emanating from the unions of putting pressure on the Labour Party to achieve a million green jobs in design, manufacturing and construction.
A Severn barrage, for example, would create tens of thousands of jobs, and cheap, safe energy. And we’d fill our factories as a result because we’d be manufacturing here. The 800 turbines could be made at Rolls Royce in Bristol - you wouldn’t have to transport them from across the world. That takes us back to Vestas and what they produced in turbine blades.
We’re surrounded by sea and the tide comes in and out, the wind blows and sometimes the sun shines. So you could, with joined-up thinking, create one million climate jobs, with the potential for one million union members. We could be a world leader instead of a world follower. I think Scotland is talking about being a net exporter of energy by 2020 because they’re harnessing the sea. We really do need to take advantage of what’s on our doorstep.
That doesn’t take a genius, but it does take somebody with the belief in it.
You came second in the last two elections. Have you got a chance of winning this time?
I know we have every chance of winning, but I also know that it’s the most uneven of contests - brought forward three years, fast-tracked, with a short nomination and ballot period and less postal days than in any other election. All those things are against me.
But I know this: there is a healthy cynicism towards the establishment, big salaries and ‘say one thing, do another’. But I’m not part of that. I believe that if sufficient numbers - and my objective is to increase the turnout - open that ballot paper they’ll see the contrast and we’ll get the vote. Unite has 1.5 million members, but at the moment 85 out of every hundred don’t know there’s an election on, don’t see the point or have no intention of voting. But if I can get to just one percent of those, that would mean 15,000 extra members voting. Take that to four percent and it’s an extra 60,000 votes.
So I know that if members open up those ballot papers, they’ll see the contrast. They know the scale of the crisis and what’s required - it’s not more of the same, but more. And that’s what I’m offering - not less, not the same, but more. More member control, more say, more democracy, more support for coordinated action.